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Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production

Author: Axel Bruns
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2005
Review Published: May 2008

 REVIEW 1: J. Richards Stevens

Among the various forms of communication practice and inquiry, the factor that distinguishes journalism from its brother and sister disciplines is the required presence of technology. Whether one considers the pen, the typewriter, the audio recorder, the video camera, or the Web page, technology has always been an intrinsic component of a journalist's ability to transfer meaning within a society.

The evolution of the American economy into an industrial model at the outset of the 20th century caused the news media to be organized and amplified according to the spirit of the age, birthing the "mass media" culture that any contemporary American would be hard-pressed to avoid. Where once amateur citizens produced the majority of news content, a profession formed with the tenets of normative professional practices necessary to effectively reach masses of diverse consumers.

America now embarks on another economic transition, from its industrial base towards an information society. Twenty-first century mass media face challenges that will require adaptation. How these changes will occur is a question that serves both as topic of study and a source of controversy for media scholars and practitioners. For as the information workers from the technology industries begin to converge with traditional media professions, a clash of cultural values seems inevitable.

The technology sector brings a culture that values collaboration and open-source development. The work undertaken in these industries is too complex for any person to handle alone, so groups of like-minded individuals routinely combine their resources together to produce work to which none may claim individual ownership. The cooperative contribution of diverse perspectives is valued above all, so a culture of sharing is often encouraged among professional elites and amateurs alike to allow for the creation and distribution of shared solutions to problems held in common.

Conversely, the traditional media industries possess a culture that values the voice of the individual journalist or organization. The sale of work in these industries relies on the reputation of the individual journalist or producer. Personal authorship from qualified professionals is desired, so controls such as copyright, objectivity, and organizational association are valued to protect the integrity of the individual communicator's relationship with the mass audience.

Into this cultural war wades Axel Bruns with Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production. Bruns serves on the faculty at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. A co-founder of M/C Media and Culture, Bruns has published prolifically on a variety of topics, including Internet usage, online journalism, collaborative content production, virtual communities, and popular music studies.

Bruns' doctoral dissertation at the University of Queensland examined resource center communities, including sites like Slashdot.org and MediaChannel.org. Expanding his dissertation to present a more systematic approach, Gatewatching extends these analyses to Weblogs, the semantic Web, and Peer-to-Peer activities.

Bruns grounds his analysis by revisiting one of the classic books of media scholarship: Herbert Gans' 1979 Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. Gans argued that the press of the late 1970s had succumbed to systematic cultural and organizational pressure that kept journalists from gathering and disseminating certain types of news stories. The failure to resist the values and agenda of the status quo led Gans to call for news that was "multiperspectival," which he defined as "presenting and representing as many perspectives as possible" (313).

Throughout Gatewatching, Bruns clings to the goal of multiperspectival coverage and argues that online collaborative communities are better positioned to produce and promote a diversity of perspectives than traditional mass media organizations.

To support this view, Bruns builds upon classic Gatekeeping theory introduced by Kurt Lewin (1947) and applied to communication by several social scientists (White, 1950; Gieber, 1964; Bass, 1969; Dimmick, 1974; for a thorough treatment of classic Gatekeeping theory, see Schudson, 1997, and Shoemaker, 1996) that models the constriction of information flow at the input (news-gathering) stage, the output (news selection) stage, and the response (the selection among consumer responses to publish or air) stage. Adding new stages to this model, Bruns frames his analysis as "Gatewatching," the process by which online individuals and communities promote the journalism they find to be quality, while contributing their own feedback and original analysis to the news discourse. Gatewatchers do serve some of the same gatekeeping functions as working journalists, but Bruns describes the role of contributors to collaborative news environments as part librarian, part publisher, and part publicist (17).

The resulting information flow looks different in different types of communities, so Bruns alternates his chapters with description and analysis of various representative forms of online communities and activities, such as Slashdot, Indymedia, Wikipedia, MediaChannel, Plastic, Kuro5hin, and Weblogs. He systematically categorizes each community into a gatewatching taxonomy, organized around the degree of editorial control needed by administrators and participants to publish content.

The glue that binds all of these online spaces together is the relative lack of meaningful distinction between audience and producer. Bruns goes to great pains to distinguish these "participatory journalism" spaces from previous industry reform movements like public journalism. What defines a gatewatching space, Bruns argues, is that "the lines between journalists and nonjournalists, as well as between the times at which what individuals do should or should not be considered journalism, are continuing to blur” (289), and that the participants in gatewatching spaces are often engaging in news production processes to increase their social capital (281).

In his immortal 1920 classic Liberty and the News, Walter Lippmann described the newfound gatekeeping role of early 20th century professional reporters in strikingly religious terms:
The news of the day as it reaches the newspaper office is an incredible medley of fact, propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears, and the task of selecting and ordering that news is one of the truly sacred and priestly offices in a democracy. (47)
Bruns' conclusions seem to be suggesting that a digital Protestant Reformation of sorts is underway: the laity are assuming Lippmann's priestly duties in the name of greater freedom, access to primary sources, and a wider distribution of social capital. He even goes so far as to suggest that these development might be signaling the "end of the age of mass media journalism" (56).

Such speculation is no doubt troubling to the practitioners and scholars of traditional mass media (much as the struggle of the Protestant Reformation was a major source of concern for the Catholic Church). However, Bruns does not ultimately conclude that the emergence of new forms of journalistic expression mean that the professional media are doomed. Rather, he predicts that professional journalists will likely evolve and continue to play a prominent role in a post-mass media journalism age (310).

This prediction is consistent with other examinations of the role of changing technology in the practice of journalism, most notably the cohabitation principle from Roger Fidler's 1997 Mediamorphosis. Fidler argued a decade ago that mass media outlets would survive the technological revolution reshaping American industry, but only if those existing organizations adapted to the needs of a changing environment.

Nor does Bruns argue that the gatewatching sites under examination serve as models for the future of industrial media. Bruns engages several research sources to argue that the production model of mass communication is insufficient to create true community, mainly due to the upper size limit of community formation before the activity of its members begin to more closely resemble an audience. Nor do the existence of gatewatchers preclude the necessity of the existence of more traditional gatekeepers:
The very point of multiperspectival gatewatching, after all, is not to ignore the products traditional news organizations, but to refer to or include mainstream reports in one’s own material, and to enhance, balance, contrast, or dispute them with additional views. (289)
Media scholars and practitioners should find Bruns' book to be a valuable contribution to their understanding of digital information consumption. Though the media landscape will likely reorganize itself several times in the coming years, the culture developing in news community spaces provides insight into the varying issues that help explain why some consumers prefer to get their hands on the production of journalism rather than consume the media products of industrial organizations.

Bruns demonstrates that these new voices, new values, and new proficiencies are allowing additional perspectives to emerge in the discussion of important topics, perspectives that can interact with traditional media coverage. Reforming coverage to be more responsive to the informational needs of a changing society and thereby creating renewed sense of social capital would appear to be within the interest of existing news organizations.

But whether they significantly change their cultural practices or not, the professional news media will continue to be an important source of cultural and informational authority for American society. After all, the Catholic Church exists today as a prominent (if not dominant) cultural authority in the religious world and shares its role in Western civilization with hundreds of other (Protestant) models of spiritual authority. Change brings death only for the unexamined.

Bass, A. A. (1969). "Redefining the 'Gatekeeper' Concept: A U.N. Radio Case Study." Journalism Quarterly 46: 59-72.

Dimmick, J. (1974). "The Gate-Keeper: An Uncertainty Theory," Journalism Monographs 37.

Fidler, R. F. (1997). Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Gans, H. (1979). Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gieber, W. (1964). "News is What Newspapermen Make It." In L.A. Dexter and D. Manning, White People, Society and Mass Communications. New York: Free Press: 173-180.

Lewin, K. (1947). "Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Channels of Group Life, Social Planning and Action Research." Human Relations 1(2): 143-153.

Lippmann, W. (1920). Liberty and the News. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe.

Schudson, M. (1997). "The Sociology of News Production." In D. Berkowitz, Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage: 7-22.

Shoemaker, P. J. (1996). "Media Gatekeeping." In M.B. Salwen and D.W. Stacks, An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates: 79-92.

White, D. M. (1950). "The 'Gate Keeper': A Case Study in the Selection of News." Journalism Quarterly 27: 383-390.

J. Richards Stevens:
J. Richards Stevens is an assistant professor in the Division of Journalism at Southern Methodist University. His research interests include the intersection of technology and mass media forms on the profession of journalism, the ethical implications of emerging media practices, technology adoption patterns within different segments of society, and the effects of popular discourse on civic engagement. He reviewed Convergence Culture for RCCS.  <stevensr@smu.edu>

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